Perhaps I imagined that one day, in my retirement, I would look over my collection of letters from teachers, students, friends, and congregants, and think about my life.  Maybe I thought the day would come when I would want to reread the papers I wrote in graduate school, and even undergraduate.  Once upon a time people saved all the letters that they received, and copies of the letters that they sent. I would need those if I ever planned to write my memoir, or my biographer would need them, if anyone would write a biography.

Over the decades, I never did go back to read the letters and papers.  Now the time has come to bundle them up, and send them to recycling. I know I could photograph all those papers, and keep the images on my phone. That seems tedious.  Time to absorb the lesson of letting go, just letting go.

My wife seems to approach this challenge logically. She certainly feels the emotional tug of an object, but then considers whether it seems likely for us to use this thing in the future. If it seems unlikely, she decides to discard the thing, or give it away. If it hurts to part with some items, she seems to withstand the pain. I seem allergic to planning in that way. I hold each object, and let the emotions wash over me, and then try to decide, and then second guess my decision, and then set the object aside for later, for some hypothetical time when I will feel decisive. I have managed to discard many items, but will never complete this job.

The tall file cabinet in my office was filled to overflowing with items that, once upon a time, I decided were worth saving. Now, as I try to look over those items one at a time, I realize that, though I have not remembered what I have saved, the items really were worth saving. And then I get rid of them. I succeed in discarding hundreds of items, but still wind up with a box full of the ones I just cannot bring myself to open. I will never finish.

Then I confront the library. My collection includes books I love because of how they changed me, and books I love because I remember who gave them to me. It includes books that entertained me, and books that I plan to read again, and that I hope to finish next time, and books that I hope to start someday. It includes classics of philosophy and religious literature that I can study but never hope to complete. How can I even think of parting with them?

Now, I have discovered that, when a book feels precious to me, the moment of giving it away can also feel precious. I gave away my copy of High Crimes and Misdemeanors by Joanne Greenberg to the woman who sat beside me on the airplane. Much as I would love to read those stories again, I love even more the thought that this stranger might feel the thrill of reading them for the first time. I gave away Esther Unmasked by Thamar Gindin, a delightful scholar of the Persian language, to a friend who will appreciate the book. I gave away my copy of The Hobbit, though it was a gift from my beloved Aunt Frances, to a friend who loves Tolkien and will treasure an early printing of that book.

Up and coming rabbinical scholars inherited much of my classical rabbinic texts, which I pray they will learn assiduously. Even the books that I took to the second-hand book store — including large collections of Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges — can help keep that dear establishment in business, and can find their way into the hands of eager readers.

The furniture that we used for decades, including beautiful sets that belonged to my wife’s grandparents, much of it will find new homes. It would not look at home in our apartment in Israel.

When people ask if we plan to send a lift (an industrial-size shipping container) with our possessions, I say

No, just a few duffle bags.

I accompany that denial with a gesture, hands palms-in at chest level, fingers extended towards each other, and then palms–out at shoulder level, fingers extended towards the sky. A friend saw that gesture and commented that I accompanied it with a placid smile. I did not realize that I was smiling.

Maybe I have learned something about letting go.

Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.